Thursday, March 02, 2006

Social Norms and Liberty

This is a continuation of "Liberty as a Social Compact."

The Wisdom Embedded in Social Norms

Social norms can and do evolve. Moreover, in a society with voice and exit they will evolve toward greater liberty, rather than less, if exit is not mooted by legislative and judicial imposition of common norms across all segments of society. I will discuss, in a future post, how liberty is thwarted by governmentally imposed norms. Here I want to expand on the concept of socially evolved norms and their critical importance to ordered liberty. I begin by quoting from John Kekes's essay, "The Idea of Conservatism":

Traditions do not stand alone: they overlap, and the problems of one are often resolved in terms of another. Most traditions have legal, moral, political, aesthetic, stylistic, managerial, and multitude of other aspects. Furthermore, people participating in a tradition bring with them beliefs, values, and practices from other traditions in which they also participate. Changes in one tradition, therefore, are likely to produce changes in others; they are like waves that reverberate throughout the other traditions of a society. Since many of these changes are complex and have consequences that grow more unpredictable the more distant they are, conservatives are cautious about changes. They want them to be incremental and no greater than necessary for correcting some specific defect. They are opposed to experimental, general, or large changes because of their uncertain effects on good lives.

Traditions, of course, may be defective. Conservatives need a way of distinguishing between defective and non-defective traditions. A non-defective tradition has stood the test of time. It has endured for a long period, measured in decades, rather than months; people adhere to it voluntarily; and it forms part of their conception of a good life. It may happen that a tradition has endured because of coercion, that people have adhered to it because of indoctrination, or that the lives of which it formed a part were bad rather than good. Those who suspect a tradition of these defects must provide a reason for it, and defenders of the tradition must consider this reason. If the reason is good, the tradition should be changed. But if there is no reason to change, then there is reason not to change. That reason is that the tradition has stood the test of time. Conservatism, therefore, is not the mindless and indiscriminate defense of all traditions, but only of those that have passed this test.

Social norms may evolve beneficially, but they are overthrown by legislators and judges to the detriment of society. As Edward Feser explains in "Hayek and Tradition,"
[t]radition, being nothing other than the distillation of centuries of human experience, itself provides the surest guide to determining the most rational course of action. Far from being opposed to reason, reason is inseparable from tradition, and blind without it. The so-called enlightened mind thrusts tradition aside, hoping to find something more solid on which to make its stand, but there is nothing else, no alternative to the hard earth of human experience, and the enlightened thinker soon finds himself in mid-air. . . . But then, was it ever truly a love of reason that was in the driver’s seat in the first place? Or was it, rather, a hatred of tradition? Might the latter have been the cause of the former, rather than, as the enlightened pose would have it, the other way around?)

The rationality of tradition and the irrationality of hostility to it were themes of Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. But it is possible that the work of F.A. Hayek (which was largely inspired by Burke [see here: ED]) presents the most fully developed and compelling account of these matters, an account presented in terms the post-Darwin enlightened modernist must find difficult to dismiss out of hand, viz., a theory of cultural evolution by means of a kind of natural selection. The aim of the present essay is to articulate and defend Hayek’s position—defend it against the objections of Hayek’s detractors, of course, but also against the misunderstandings of many of his admirers. Some of these admirers are keen indeed on the “evolution” part of his views, but, being less keen on the “tradition” part, make him out to be an advocate of constant change, of “dynamism” over “stasis.”

But he was not that at all, at least, not in the sense these would-be Hayekians imagine. Technological advance, market innovation, and the like were things of which he was a great defender, but those are not the things at issue here. Where fundamental moral institutions are concerned, Hayek was very much in line with the Burkean conservative tradition, a tradition wary of tampering with those institutions (including the specific moral institutions underlying the free market order rightly valued by libertarians). Of course, Hayek did not rule out all change to these institutions in an absolute way, but then, neither do conservatives. At issue is where the default position lies, with who gets the benefit of the doubt in the debate between the traditionalist and the moral innovator. And in this dispute, Hayek is indisputably on the side of the conservative. . . .

Hayek’s view is that the specific content of a traditional practice is indeed often important. It isn’t just a matter of its happening to be traditional; rather, its being traditional is taken by Hayek to be evidence that it has some independent intrinsic value. It is vital to keep this in mind, for Hayek’s position is sometimes mistakenly taken to entail a kind of relativism—as if the traditional practices prevailing in one society must be the best for that society, and the ones prevailing in another are the best for it, with there being no fact of the matter about which society’s traditions are superior. But Hayek believes nothing of the sort; indeed, he insists on the objective superiority of some traditions over others. This sort of relativism could be defended only with regard to traditions (like traveling specifically to grandmother’s house every Christmas) the value of which lies solely in the fact that they are traditional. Hayek is not primarily interested in that sort of tradition.

Hayek’s work clearly expresses ideas that resonate with this conception of tradition as the gradual, internal working out of the implications of a system of thought or practice. This is most evident in Rules and Order, wherein he examines the evolution of rules of practice—as embodied in systems of morality, and especially within the common law—as a process whereby often inexplicit or tacit rules gradually become articulated and their implications drawn out as new situations arise. Law and morality, in his conception, form an organic and evolving structure rather than an artificial closed system created by fiat—a spontaneous order which, in the nature of the case, cannot be fully articulated all at once, but only progressively, and even then not in any finalized way, for there is no limit in principle either to new circumstances or to the system’s inherent but unknown implications. This is part of the reason socialism is impossible, in Hayek’s view: Systems of law—including the laws by which a scheme of “just distribution” of wealth would have to be implemented—are simply too complex for human beings consciously to design, for the circumstances the law has to cover are, like the economic information a socialist planner would need in order to do his job, complex, fragmented, and dispersed, unknowable to any single mind. A workable system of law must, at the most basic level anyway, evolve spontaneously, with conscious human design involved at most in refining it, tinkering around its edges.
Liberty in the Real World

Social norms may be consistent with the abstract idea of liberty -- that one may be left alone if one leaves others alone -- but they necessarily go beyond that generality to set specific limits on acceptable behavior. Behavior that strays beyond those limits is that which may lead to the subversion of liberty, either through the direct harms it may cause or through its subversive effects on social cohesion. (Such prospects underlie much of the opposition to legislatively or judicially imposed abortion rights and same-sex marriage, for example.*)

Think of life in a small town where "eveyone knows everyone else's business." The sense of being "watched" actually tends to foster liberty, in that it discourages crime. As a result, one's life and property generally are safer in small towns than in large cities. By the same token, the sense of being "watched" can seem oppressive; one feels less free to do things that might draw social opprobrium, even if those things do no more than offend others' sensibilities.

Why should everyone in a small town have to put up with small-town mores for the sake of a safer, saner life, you may ask? Well, if you don't like small-town mores, fine, pack up and go to the big city, but don't forget to take your handgun (if you're allowed to have one in the big city), and keep your life and homeowner's insurance paid up. (Alternatively, you can stay in the small town and try, through example and persuasion, to change its mores so that there is greater tolerance of social diversity.)

The point is that liberty and happiness cannot be found in the abstract; they must be found in the real world, among real people (or totally apart from them, if you're inclined to reclusiveness). Finding an acceptable degree of liberty and happiness in the real world means contending with many subsets of humankind, each with different sets of social norms.** It is unlikely that any of those sets of social norms affords perfect liberty for any one person. So, in the end, one picks the place that suits one best, imperfect as it may be, and makes the most of it. Sometimes one even tries to change it, but change doesn't always go in the direction one might prefer.

Think of the constrasting visions of liberty and happiness represented in a hippie commune and a monastic order. The adherents of each -- to the extent that they are free to leave -- can be happy, each in his and her own way. The adherents of each are bound to, and liberated by, the norms of the community, which set the bounds of permissible interaction among the adherents. Happiness is not found in the simplistic "harm principle" of John Stuart Mill; happiness is not found in a particular way of life; happiness is found in the ability to choose (and exit) a way of life that, on balance, serves a person's conception of happiness.

In sum, there is no escaping the fact that the attainment of something like liberty and happiness requires the acceptance of -- and compliance with -- some social norms that one may find personally distasteful if not oppressive. But it is possible -- in a large and diverse nation where each social group is free to establish and enforce its own norms -- to find a place that comes closest to suiting one's conception of liberty and happiness. The critical qualfication is that each social group must free to establish and enforce its own norms, as long as those norms include voice and exit.
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* The knee-jerk libertarian (and "liberal") will say, for example, that abortion and same-sex marriage are consistent with and required by liberty. But they are not, as I have argued in the several posts linked here. They are steps down a slippery slope toward the further loss of liberty, just as the "progressivism" of the Roosevelts nudged and pushed us down a slippery slope toward the regulatory-welfare state in which we are now enmeshed.

What few libertarians seem willing to credit is the possibility that abortion is of a piece with selective breeding and involuntary euthanasia, wherein the state fosters eugenic practices that aren’t far removed from those of the Third Reich. And when those practices become the norm, what and who will be next? Libertarians, of all people, should be alert to such possibilities. Instead of reflexively embracing “choice” they should be asking whether “choice” will end with fetuses.

The same principle applies to same-sex marriage; it will have consequences that most libertarians are unwilling to consider. Although it's true that traditional, heterosexual unions have their problems, those problems have been made worse, not better, by the intercession of the state. (The loosening of divorce laws, for example, signaled that marriage was to be taken less seriously, and so it has been.) Nevertheless, the state -- in its usual perverse wisdom -- may create new problems for society by legitimating same-sex marriage, thus signaling that traditional marriage is just another contractual arrangement in which any combination of persons may participate. Heterosexual marriage -- as Jennifer Roback Morse explains -- is a primary and irreplicable civilizing force. The recognition of homosexual marriage by the state will undermine that civilizing force. The state will be saying, in effect, "Anything goes. Do your thing. The courts, the welfare system, and the taxpayer -- above all -- will "pick up the pieces." And so it will go.

** There is a kind of pseudo-anarcho-libertarian who asserts that he can pick and choose his associates, so that his interactions with others need consist only of voluntary transactions. Very few people can do that, and to the extent they can do it, they are able to do it because they live in a polity that is made orderly by the existence of the state (like it or not). In other words, anarcho-libertarian attitudes are bought on the cheap, at the expense of one's fellow citizens. But most people cannot and do not wish to escape the influence of groups. Think of the many kinds of groups to which we belong -- even fleetingly -- because our membership in them yields net benefits, even though we must sometimes make compromises in order to meet the expectations of the other members of the group. For example, most of us reside in a neighborhood where there usually are minimal expectations about how one keeps up one's property, even if one avoids the neighbors. Working in a factory, office, or store is certainly a matter of group membership that requires one to make all sorts of compromises. Then, there are athletic activities (sports teams, gym workouts) which usually involve the observance of certain niceties. The list could go on for a long time.

Related posts:

The State of Nature
Some Thoughts about Liberty
The Paradox of Libertarianism
Liberty as a Social Compact